10 Important Things to Consider When Planning Your Landscape Design

Whether you are interested in completely redesigning your landscape or simply making a few changes there are some important factors to consider before you start planting.

While many people head straight to their local gardening supply store to browse the selections, creating a plan beforehand will help you chose plants that will best fit your needs and thrive in your landscape.

It's easy to go out and be tempted into buying plants that look beautiful at the garden store, only to get them home and realize they are wrong for your landscape. These tips will help you develop a plan and put you on the road to creating a beautiful, cohesive, and thriving landscape. 

1. Know your yard

Think about your regional climate, the topography of your site, and your soil type when planning your landscape. Using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a great place to start.

Keep in mind that the specific conditions of your yard are likely to create a microclimate based on the amount and length of sun and shade exposure the area receives.

Microclimates are usually broken into one of four categories: full sun, partial shade, shade, or deep shade; take note of your landscape's microclimate when selecting plants for your landscape.

The topography of your site is important to consider as well as you plan; take note of how water drains in your landscape. The best landscape design will promote water movement away from your home towards other areas of your yard.

2. Who will be using your yard?

Think about who will be using your yard and how they will use it. Will children be using your yard? Do you have pets? Are you hoping to use your yard for outdoor entertaining? Remember you can create different spaces for different uses in your landscape using strategic plantings and hardscapes. Walkways can be used to move people from one area to another.

Since you will be using and maintaining your yard (or hiring someone to maintain it) consider what your maintenance style and budget are. Be as realistic as you can. How much time will you truly have to put into your landscape? Or if you won't have the time will you have the money to pay someone else to put in the time? How much do you have to invest in your landscape? Determining the answer to these questions will help to ensure the success of your landscape for years to come.

3. Think about themes

Zen gardenA theme can unify your landscape and help guide your plant and material selections. Themes can be as simple as using consistent shapes or forms throughout your yard or as complex as creating a relaxation garden or an Oriental garden.

When deciding on a theme for your yard, a good place to start is looking at the architecture of your home. Try to complement the lines and style of your home's architecture in your yard; after all, your yard is an extension of your home.

Themes can help guide how you place and select plants, decorations, hardscapes, and structures. Are you someone who wants lots of neat, geometric shapes and structures in you landscape? Do you want softer lines and a more natural feel to your space? Do you want a landscape to include only specific colors? Questions like these will help you choose a unified theme for your garden.

For more on finding inspiration for your design theme, read the EDIS publication Landscape Design: Finding Inspiration for a Design Theme. Gardening Solutions also has articles on specific Types of Gardens.

4. Create and link spaces

In order to get the most out of your yard, think of it as another room, or rooms, in your home. Just as a home has well defined and carefully planned rooms, so should your landscape; using your materials wisely allows you can create different "rooms" in your landscape.

Don't forget to think about how you'll link your spaces. How will people move from one area of your yard to another? Create openings to encourage exploration in your yard and keep people moving throughout the landscape.

5. Make your plants work for you

Early in your planning you should determine how your plants will function in your landscape. Plants can be used in a number of ways, they can provide you with fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables, beautiful scenery, lovely aromas, and much more.

Plants can be used as barriers to define areas within your landscape as well as identify where your landscape ends. You can use plants to create physical barriers in your landscape by blocking both views and access to an area. If you want to keep your views open, but maintain some barriers, low growing plants can be used to create implied barriers, blocking access but not the view.

Correctly placed plants can also be used to alter your landscape site conditions.  Temperature, light levels, and wind are greatly affected by the trees and plants in a landscape. The noises in your landscape can be affected by what you put into the design, such as water features or bird houses, as well as any physical barriers that keep your garden insulated from noises beyond your landscape.

6. Structure your plantings

Consider your various visual planes when selecting plants. Starting from the area above you, think about the overhead plane, this might include archways and trees.

Moving on to the vertical plane, consider how closely spaced or far apart plants will be, how plants will be layered or staggered (generally larger plants are used behind smaller plants), as well as the individual and massed heights and widths of your plants.

Don't forget about the ground plane (including how smaller plants will be grouped and arranged as well as groundcovers and hardscapes).

Repeating similar shapes and structures in your garden will give you a unified view throughout your space.

7. Highlight important points

Using unique plants, distinct structures, or garden ornaments allows you to highlight a particular area of your landscape. Contrasting shapes, textures, sizes, and colors will help to capture attention and direct it to a specific area.

8. Pay attention to detail

Plants, hardscapes, and garden ornaments all have their own visual details, from various forms and shapes to an array of colors and textures. By thinking about how these visual details can be used to complement and contrast each other, you can create a cohesive and captivating landscape.

Don't just think about visuals; taking into consideration the scents of the plants you select for your landscape can enhance the experience you create for those in your garden. Think about when flowers will be blooming and fragrant, as well as what scents will complement each other in the landscape.

9. Think about the future

More specifically, take into account how the passage of time will affect your landscape plants. When selecting plants, make sure you consider the plant's growth rate, maintenance needs, and its eventual mature size. Make sure you provide your plants with enough room to reach their mature size. Keep in mind though, that mature size is typically based on optimal growing conditions, your landscape's specific conditions may cause a plant to grow larger or smaller.

10. Protect your resources

By choosing resource-efficient plants, consciously managing water, and choosing environmentally sound hardscapes, you can help protect and preserve your environment.

Before removing plants from your landscape, determine whether these plants truly need to be removed, or if they could be relocated to another area of your yard. When selecting new plants, look for resource-efficient plants, ones that will require less water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

When planning the changes to your landscape, consider installing a rainwater catchment system which will provide you with an environmentally sustainable source of irrigation water. With careful planning such a system can even be incorporated as an aesthetic design element.

Using environmentally friendly hardscapes, non-toxic preservatives, stains, paints, and cleaners is another way you can protect your natural resources. Also, consider reusing construction materials; before demolition starts consider what materials you might be able to reuse, repurpose, or incorporate into your new landscape design.

Adapted from: Gail Hansen, Landscape Design: Ten Important Things to Consider (ENH 112), Environmental Horticulture Department, Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology. (Reviewed January 2012.)